Leif GW Persson is a controversial criminologist at the heart of Sweden’s justice system. 'Bäckström' is his most famous creation – but how close is he to his colourful creator?
Anthony Morris

18 Feb 2021 - 8:42 AM  UPDATED 18 Feb 2021 - 9:11 AM

Imagine a successful crime writer who’s also been one of his country’s leading criminal experts for the last 40 years while having a number of popular television series while making a decent-sized fortune selling wine and bringing out a range of chewing tobacco. 

That’s Sweden’s Leif GW Persson, who at 75 shows no signs of slowing down and who’s just seen his most famous creation adapted into a hit television series. Is Bäckström based on reality? You be the judge (then watch the series).                                                                                           

He’s a professor of crime

While Persson is a prominent media identity in Sweden, much of his fame has come from his dealings with real-life crime. After getting his degree in criminology, he worked at the Swedish National Police Board, which he left in 1977 after a scandal where he uncovered connections between the Minister of Justice and a prostitution ring (he later returned to serve as a Professor of Criminology). He’s lectured at Stockholm University, is a renowned psychological profiler, and has served as an advisor to the Swedish Ministry of Justice. When it comes to crime in Sweden, it’s safe to say he knows his stuff.

He’s not all that different from his most famous creation

To date Persson has written three novels featuring brilliant yet arrogant homicide detective Evert Bäckström. Known as much for his ability to irritate everyone around him as his brilliant crime-solving skills, he’s a first-rate comic creation dropped into a series of convincing Nordic Noir mysteries. Like Persson’s other books, they’ve been praised for their depth of knowledge of police procedure and criminology; Persson also has a wicked sense of humour, and Bäckström’s grumpy, self-important nature is the ideal showcase for a steady stream of sharp one-liners and cutting insults.

Bäckström is his latest television series

In Bäckström, Evert Bäckström (Kjell Bergqvist) has a mystery on his hands when a neighbour finds a skull with a bullet hole in it on a deserted island. It turns out that the victim supposedly died somewhere else, and soon Bäckström (who seems just as interested in ducking out for a good meal as he is in the grind of mundane police work) and his team are tangled up in a mystery that leads all the way back to the Thailand tsunami disaster of 2004. Will he be able to maintain his proud boast that he’s solved 99% of the crimes he’s handled, or will he be unable to solve the mystery of the woman who died twice?

This isn’t Bäckström’s first screen appearance

Evert Bäckström first appeared on television as a supporting character in an adaptation of one of Persson’s series of novels looking into the 1986 murder of the Swedish Prime Minister, Death of a Pilgrim. Then, in a fairly unusual sign of his international success, Backstrom was picked up by Hollywood in 2015 and turned into a series on Fox, where Rainn Wilson played the cranky detective. Unlike the Swedish Bäckström, which was recently given the green light for a second series, the US version didn’t click with critics or viewers, and was cancelled after 13 episodes. 

He's also a media commentator

Like Evert Bäckström, Persson is an expert when it comes to crime; also like Bäckström, Persson isn’t big on social niceties, and is known for speaking his mind in public and telling friends and foe alike to “go to hell” when they displease him. Not surprisingly, this combination of expertise and an outspoken public persona has made him a perfect talking head for the Swedish media. When he’s not co-hosting various true crime shows he’s constantly on television, radio and in newspapers to give his opinions on both crime and pretty much everything else, including politics, food and wine, literature and his love of hunting.

He has “Black and White” years

While Bäckström likes a drink, he doesn’t go as far with it as Persson, who came up with an unusual way of dealing with his drinking problem: he’d spend half the year (the so-called “black” half) drinking to his heart’s content, and the other (“white”) half stone cold sober. While this approach isn’t exactly one approved of by medical experts, it seems to have worked for him; it wasn’t until he was well into his 70s that he said he could no longer manage the “black” half of the year and was looking into cutting down his drinking all year round.

He likes his food too

Again, Bäckström likes a nice meal (and will sometimes skip out on police work to get one), but he’s not quite up there with his creator. Until the early 2000s, Persson would regularly indulge in “food orgies” with media mogul Jan Stenbeck, where the duo would wolf down lavish amounts of high-end gourmet food and wine. Persson gave up after his doctors told him his body couldn’t take much more: Stenbeck kept going and died in 2002.

He’s doing quite well out of all this

All of this – the media work, not the eating and drinking – has made Persson a very wealthy man. Although the drinking actually has played a part, as aside from his income and various share dealings he’s also made a steady income from his involvement in various wineries. He’s also looking into setting up a line of snus, a form of chewing tobacco popular in Sweden (and illegal almost everywhere else).

He could die at any moment

This wild life has taken a toll on his health, with problems mounting up over the last few years – so much so that he’s told the numerous television productions he’s involved with that he could die at any time and they need to have a replacement constantly on standby. Fortunately, the current series of Bäckström is already complete.

But he’ll live on – in board game form

Yes, he recently released a board game, titled GW’s Brott (“GW’s Crime”). One player gets to be Persson; everyone else plays a criminal trying to destroy evidence before they’re caught. Whether you should have a drink handy when playing Persson is entirely up to you.

Bäckström is now streaming on SBS On Demand.


Follow the author @morrbeat


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